Friday, January 20, 2017

How To Write Historical Fiction: Guest Post by Suzy Henderson, Author of The Beauty Shop

I write historical fiction because firstly I have a particular obsession with the World War Two period, and secondly, I have always found this genre to be so enlightening. It’s my passion and it's exhilarating to discover little-known stories and people who did great things and yet have since been forgotten. It’s amazing to slip back and immerse yourself in a bygone era with stories that enable you to enjoy a multi-sensory experience, living and breathing the past while indulging in the luxury of escapism.

If you’re new to writing or simply new to writing historical fiction, then you may be wondering where to begin. Writing is such a personal, individualized craft and writers must find their own way through the maze and, more importantly, their voice. However, until that day arrives, there are many useful online resources you can turn to with helpful tips and advice to assist you on your journey.

While deciding what to write, we are often advised to “write what we know.” The problem with this is that history is riddled with gaps. As a historian, you need to see things from multiple perspectives and inevitably find yourself wearing multiple hats as you sift through the archives searching for information, forming opinions.

So, “write what you know” may seem like safe advice on the one hand, but is this enough? Without interest in your subject, you may promptly fail. Write what you love is more in tune with my craft. If you love your subject, then you are more likely to see it through to completion, and your passion will illuminate the writing.

When I set out to write my novel, I wondered if it was possible to be 100% accurate with historical facts and still craft a compelling story. I came to realize it was not. The problem is that you’re not writing a history book, you’re writing fiction, interwoven with real facts. The other problem is as mentioned above – history is largely the unknown. For instance, if you’re writing about a real person who lived in 1910, you’re going to have to invent a chunk of narrative and dialogue. The archives mainly contain the bare facts, not the finer detail, so the writer must create this. Fiction allows us this leeway.

So, before you begin writing, do some initial research to give yourself enough detail to proceed, but be conscious of where you choose to do your digging. The internet is both friend and foe. While it is an incredibly useful resource, beware of sites such as Wikipedia. Try to use primary sources where you can and remember to double-check all facts you collect for accuracy. Biographies, reference books, old newsreels, radio clips, films, newspaper archives and even novels published in the particular historical period can be useful sources. Reading is the lifelong learning aid of any writer and so spend time reading critically, analyzing historical fiction so that you can see how other authors craft stories.

Another useful tip is to read about your subject until it becomes ingrained in your memory. In this way, you’ll be able to write more fluidly without having to keep checking your research or adding too much detail.

Before you begin to write, plan each chapter. The key is to have a formal structure, so you know where to start and where you’re heading. It’s recommended to begin with a plan as often there is a lot of research and it’s easy to become lost and make mistakes. In the beginning, it can be difficult to visualize everything you will need to know to be able to write your story accurately, and this is another advantage of planning effectively.

Consider language. If you’re slipping back to the 1940s, it’s not too different to the present day aside from the odd word or phrase. However, if you’re writing a story set in Tudor England, the language of the day was rather archaic, and some phrases and words are simply too difficult or impossible to decipher now. As a writer, you must also consider your reader. Many authors choose to use ordinary language with the odd period word added throughout for a dash of authentic flavour which seems to work well.

From your research, you should be able to depict the setting as it would be, such as the modes of transport used, food, the clothing of the period along with every detail relevant to everyday life.

Consider the society at that time along with any political and cultural views. For example, before WW1, Britain was very much a patriarchal society, and a woman’s place was stereotypically in the home. As a writer, you need to be mindful of such things so as not to judge by present day standards. Your reader may feel certain things are discriminatory by today’s standards, but they will accept that was the way of things at that time, and as a writer, you don't need to explain.

This leads me on to using real people in your stories. Obviously, if it’s King Henry VIII then it’s not too much of a concern, but, if like me, you choose to use someone who died less than sixty years ago, be mindful of the fact they will probably have family living today. Be aware of how you portray your characters and of casting judgments.

As you write the story, try not to worry too much about historical accuracy. Don’t break to do more research as it’s time-consuming and you’re also at risk of going off on a tangent. Remember, first drafts are always rough, but you can add the finer detail and accurate facts during the re-writing phase before the final polish.

Once you have the first draft, it’s time to revise, and this is where you begin to build, layer by layer with the necessary finer detail. It’s vital that you don’t use historical facts as an information dump. So often you become caught in the trap of thinking that you must use all of the fabulous research you’ve discovered. Wrong! Readers recognise info dumps and often find them tedious as they slow the pace. Only use what is relevant and what will advance the story.

Remember the five senses as you write, something that will help your characters engage with the story. “Show” don’t “tell.” Let’s have them smell the burning buildings, the acrid smoke lining their throats and nostrils. Let them listen to the whistle of bombs plummeting to the ground. Have them feel the vibration of the explosion, the ground shaking beneath their feet, knocking them off balance and let them taste the coppery tang of blood in their mouths. Like any artist, your aim is to paint a picture with your story, so remember to paint yours using the historical facts as you go.

While it may all seem daunting in the beginning, don’t be deterred. Research, plan your story and write it without a care for how rough the first draft seems. You’ll be surprised at how much easier and clearer it becomes afterwards. And re-writing can be a joy as you transform a rough around the edges story into a sparkling diamond.

One last note: There are many resources available on how to write historical fiction, but if there is one single book I can recommend, it’s this: Get Started In Writing Historical Fiction by author Emma Darwin. It's an invaluable resource and a fantastic guide, and yes, if you’re wondering, I do have a copy. And on that note, happy writing!

Publisher: Avis Press
Pub. Date: November 28th, 2016
Pages: 313

England, 1942. After three years of war, Britain is showing the scars. But in this darkest of days, three lives intertwine, changing their destinies and those of many more.
Dr. Archibald McIndoe, a New Zealand plastic surgeon with unorthodox methods, is on a mission to treat and rehabilitate badly burned airmen – their bodies and souls. With the camaraderie and support of the Guinea Pig Club, his boys battle to overcome disfigurement, pain, and prejudice to learn to live again.

John ‘Mac’ Mackenzie of the US Air Force is aware of the odds. He has one chance in five of surviving the war. Flying bombing missions through hell, he’s fighting more than the Luftwaffe. Fear and doubt stalk him on the ground and in the air, and he’s torn between his duty and his conscience.

Shy, decent and sensible, Stella Charlton’s future seems certain until war breaks out. As a new recruit to the WAAF, she meets an American pilot on New Year’s Eve. After just one dance, she falls head over heels for the handsome airman. But when he survives a crash, she realises her own battle has only just begun.
Based on a true story, The Beauty Shop is a moving tale of love, compassion, and determination against a backdrop of wartime tragedy.

Buy the Book


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About the Author

Suzy Henderson was born in the North of England, but a career in healthcare would eventually take her away to rural Somerset. Years later, she decided to embark upon a degree in English Literature with The Open University.

That was the beginning of a new life journey, rekindling her love of writing and passion for history. With an obsession for military and aviation history, she began to write.

It was an old black and white photograph of her grandmother that caught Suzy’s imagination many years ago. Her grandmother died in 1980 taking her tales of war with her, having never spoken of those times. When she decided to research her grandmother’s war service in the WAAF, things spiralled from there. Little-known stories and tragedies came to light and it is such discoveries that inform her writing.

Having relocated to the wilds of North Cumbria, she has the Pennines and the Scottish border in sight and finally feels at home. Suzy is a member of the Historical Novel Society and her debut novel, The Beauty Shop, was released in November 2016.

Discover more about Suzy on her website, and connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.


  1. Hi Colleen. Thank you so much for hosting me here today. It has been a pleasure and I thank you for your great support. Have a wonderful weekend. :)

    1. You are so very welcome, Suzy! Thank you so much for writing the post and letting me share it, it's wonderful! Have a wonderful weekend as well!

  2. Thank you for your post. I am eager to read your book.

    1. If you get the chance to read it, Carol, let me know what you think!